September 28, 2012

Loss of Campbell's cannery caps long decline of Sacramento-area food processing

On Stockton Boulevard in Sacramento, office workers toil in a brick complex where Libby's workers once canned fruits and vegetables. Over on North Seventh Street near downtown, a new housing development is planned for the site of the former T.H. Richards cannery.

On Stockton Boulevard in Sacramento, office workers toil in a brick complex where Libby's workers once canned fruits and vegetables. Over on North Seventh Street near downtown, a new housing development is planned for the site of the former T.H. Richards cannery.

While it didn't get the literary boost that author John Steinbeck gave to Cannery Row in Monterey, Sacramento was once a major center of canneries and food processing.

According to historical accounts, the Sacramento area had 20 major canning or packing plants by the close of the 1920s. That doesn't count regional accessory companies that produced tin cans and packing crates.

That was long ago, however, before improvements in frozen food technology and the transportation network enabled people to eat more frozen and fresh fruits and vegetables rather than relying on canned goods.

Campbell Soup's announcement Thursday that it would close its massive production plant in south Sacramento is the latest in a long line of closures that has nearly wiped out the canning industry in the Sacramento area. The state, too, has seen a steady decline in food processing jobs, as the nation has shifted to eating frozen and fresh produce rather than canned goods.

Just since 1990, the number of California food manufacturing jobs has fallen from 174,000 to 149,000 – a nearly 15 percent decline – even as the total number of jobs in all industries statewide grew by almost 15 percent, according to the state Employment Development Department.

"There's no canneries we used to have lots of them," said Monsignor James Church of St. Rose Catholic Church, near the Campbell Soup plant.

Mechanization also helped winnow the numbers of plants, experts said. "There's been a lot of consolidation in the industry," said Rob Neenan, president of the California League of Food Processors.

Once, though, the Sacramento region processed and canned all manner of fruits and vegetables. The signature product, of course, was the tomato. Some of the big players:

The Libby McNeill & Libby cannery complex at 31st Street and Stockton Boulevard in Sacramento. Construction there began in 1912 with a then-astronomical investment of $1 million.

With access to two railroads, the Libby plant once employed some 1,000 workers. In the 1980s, the site became a business center.

The multiple-building dynasty built by San Francisco-based California Packing Corp., the predecessor of Del Monte Corp. It once oversaw four canneries in Sacramento.

Del Monte Packing Plant No. 11 at 16th and C streets, built in 1925 and billed as one of the largest in the world, once employed more than 2,500 and was touted as a jewel that made Sacramento what local officials called the canning capital of the West.

In 1931, Tom Richards and brothers Peter and Henry Bercut bought into a cannery on North Seventh Street, just south of the American River. Prior to the outbreak of World War II, the Bercut-Richards Packing Co. was the region's largest producer of tomato products.

That facility underwent multiple changes over the years, and was known in recent years as the Tri Valley Growers cannery. It went under the wrecking ball in June 2010, making way for the Township 9 development of residences, offices and stores.

In 2000, the ax fell on the Spreckels sugar beet processing plant outside Woodland, a steady job provider in Yolo County since 1937. Former workers at the plant recalled that it processed 4,000 tons of sugar beets a day in the 1960s. Today, it's a facility operated by West Sacramento concrete company Clark Pacific.

Another shuttered sugar beet factory, in Clarksburg, is now occupied by boutique wineries.

Prior to World War II and shortly thereafter, canning and packing jobs were eagerly sought by local residents and immigrants making their way to Sacramento. Union representation at the plants translated to decent wages, higher than what could be earned by those laboring in Central Valley farm fields.

In 1988, Sacramento Bee columnist Stan Gilliam wrote: "Canning was a major industry in Sacramento before the perfection of frozen foods and the availability of fresh produce the year round (prompting a consumer drift away from canned fruits and vegetables), and there were plenty of people who located their homes within walking distance of those seasonal jobs."

Gilliam spoke from experience. He spent years as a seasonal timekeeper and night office manager at Del Monte Corp. in Sacramento.

In the mid-1970s and 1980s, the frozen-vegetable business began cutting into the profits of California canneries and packing facilities. From 1974 to 1986, the number of jobs in food processing in the four-county Sacramento metro area declined by more than 30 percent, according to the EDD.

According to federal statistics, Americans consumed an average of 23 pounds of canned fruit a year in the late 1960s. By the mid-1980s, that had plunged to about 9 pounds.

Notably, demand for canned tomato products remained steady throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, which experts cited as a primary reason for the survival of some plants packaging tomato-based foods.

While it's closing its south Sacramento soup plant, Campbell Soup said it plans to keep open tomato paste plants in Dixon and Stockton. Campbell's continues to buy almost all its tomatoes from California growers, the company said.

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